The Centrality of Nuclear Weapons

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Brahma Chellaney

Paper presented to the Valdai Discussion Group, November 2014

downloadPower shifts are an inexorable phenomenon in history. The global power structure is not static but continually evolves. The international institutional structure, however, has remained largely static since the mid-twentieth century rather than evolving with the changing power realities and challenges. Reforming and restructuring the international system poses the single biggest challenge to preserving global peace, stability, and continued economic growth. A twenty-first world cannot remain indefinitely saddled with twentieth-century institutions and rules.

Although the world has changed fundamentally since the end of the World War II, one factor remains the same — nuclear weapons still represent power and force in international relations. Despite major military innovations and the deployment of an array of new weapon systems, nuclear weapons’ relevance or role has not changed. Indeed, five key points stand out:

1. Nuclear weapons have strategic and political utility. Think of Britain and France without nuclear weapons. They would become irrelevant, if not in international relations, then at least at the United Nations. Britain and France value nuclear weapons for their political utility. Russia must take comfort in the strategic utility of these weapons; without them, the United States would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to take on Russia in response to the developments in Crimea and Ukraine.

Such is the strategic utility of nuclear weapons that U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to rule out the military option against Russia after the referendum in Crimea. He even distanced the U.S. from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that was signed in 1994 to provide Ukraine security assurances about its territorial integrity in exchange for its relinquishing of the nuclear arsenal. After all, Russia remains a nuclear superpower.

2. Nuclear proliferation and the utility of nuclear weapons are linked. It is the very utility of nuclear weapons that serves as the main proliferation incentive. This means that the proliferation incentive will remain strong as long as nuclear weapons exist.

To be sure, the international nuclear nonproliferation regime has progressively become very stringent since the 1970s. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in non-nuclear-weapons states, for example, have gone from being site-specific to becoming “full-scope” (comprehensive) in nature. The IAEA’s Additional Protocol empowers its inspectors to check even a non-nuclear facility in a non-nuclear-weapons state. There isn’t much room to further tighten the nonproliferation regime.

Still, the stringent nonproliferation regime has made proliferation very difficult or driven it underground. There are limits to what underground proliferation can accomplish. But there are also limits to what coercive enforcement of nonproliferation norms can achieve.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, was originally intended to prevent countries like Japan, West Germany and Italy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Japan, for example, did not ratify the treaty until 1976 — eight years after the NPT was concluded, and six years after the pact took effect. West Germany and Italy deposited their instruments of ratification only in 1975. After France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 in the Sahara, West Germany was considered the most likely candidate to follow suit. West Germany first tried to block the conclusion of the NPT before seeking to influence the outcome of the negotiations.

The NPT also became the foundation for a number of regional nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) agreements, which include the Treaty of Tlatelolco (1969), establishing a NWFZ in Latin America’ the Treaty of Rarotonga (1986) in South Pacific; the Treaty of Bangkok (1997) signed by ASEAN members; the Treaty of Pelindaba (2009); and the Central Asian NWFZ (2009), which has all post-Soviet republics in Central Asia as its members. Regional NWFZ agreements were designed to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Today, the NWFZs cover almost half of the world and include 115 states plus Mongolia, whose status as a one-state nuclear-weapon-free zone is recognized by UN General Assembly Resolution 3261. The effectiveness of the NWFZs depends on the NPT as the core foundation of the nonproliferation regime.

The challenges to the NPT, however, have been coming from outside the list of its original targets. NPT’s first test, in fact, came early — in May 1974 when India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE). As India was a non-signatory and indeed had vowed to stay out of the NPT when the treaty was concluded, the test involved no breach of legal obligations. However, after the Indian test, PNEs quickly fell out of international favor, although the U.S. and the Soviet Union both had large PNE programs.

Looking back, the NPT has been a remarkably successful treaty, limiting nuclear-weapons states to a small number. Yet the NPT’s long-term challenge comes from the dichotomy it creates — that it is morally and legally reprehensible for most countries to pursue nuclear ambitions but morally and legally alright for a few states to rely on (and modernize their) nuclear weapons for security.

Today, the spotlight is on the nuclear programs in two states — Iran and North Korea and Iran — as well as on the potential nexus between terrorism and WMD.

North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un won’t give up the nuclear option because he understands the utility of nukes. After all, the United States used aerial bombardment to overthrow ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, eight years after he surrendered Libya’s nuclear option in 2003. The big question today is whether Iran, as part of a rapprochement with the United States, would agree to at least freeze its nuclear program, if not give up its nuclear option.

3. Nuclear disarmament has fallen by the wayside. It has become little more than a pious slogan. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament (CD), for example, has been without real work for 18 years now.

It is significant that nuclear disarmament fell off the global agenda after the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995. The NPT was originally conceived as a 25-year bargain between nuclear-weapons states and non-nuclear-weapons states. But as a result of the 1995 action, the treaty has become permanent. This action eliminated international pressure on the nuclear-weapons states in regard to their arsenals.

Not only has nuclear disarmament fallen by the wayside since, there is also little international attention on the nuclear-modernization programs currently underway. This means the five NPT nuclear powers and the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan can pursue nuclear modernization with no real constraints.

Take Obama, who, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s most-expensive and most-sophisticated nuclear deterrent. As the New York Times reported on September 22, 2014, the United States plans to spend about $355 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years, and up to $1 trillion over 30 years. Spending so much more money on nuclear weapons is simply not justified, given the changing nature of security threats. In fact, in mid-2014, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal commission co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired Gen. John Abizaid called the Obama administration’s plans to expand the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” By pursuing a slightly less ambitious nuclear-modernization program, the United States can easily save billions of dollars and still keep the “triad” of delivery systems armed with the same number of nuclear warheads planned under the 2010 New START Treaty.

The real “success” of the NPT has been in reinforcing the system of extended deterrence by enabling countries such as those in NATO and others like Australia, Japan and South Korea to continue to rely on the U.S. for nuclear-umbrella protection. Minus the NPT, these countries would have been the most-likely candidates to go nuclear because they also happen to be the most-capable states technologically. So, the effect of the NPT has to strengthen extended deterrence.

Today, a key question that arises is whether any of the countries ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be willing to forgo the benefits of extended deterrence in order to help lower the utility of nuclear weapons and give a boost to the cause of nuclear disarmament. After all, the security imperatives that prompted such countries more than half a century ago to seek nuclear-umbrella protection no longer are valid in a post-Cold War world.

To be sure, some of these states, especially Japan, have seen their regional security environment deteriorate and thus can ill-afford to renounce reliance on U.S. nuclear-umbrella protection. However, the majority of states basking under the U.S. nuclear umbrella find themselves today in relatively benign security environment. They extend from Canada and Norway to Portugal and Australia. Such states could take the lead to gradually wean themselves away from relying on extended nuclear deterrence.

4. Nuclear might provides the cover to some powers for engaging in acts that contravene global norms and international law. There are several examples of this.

For example, Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, reinforced by its conventional-military superiority, emboldens it to act preemptively at times, or to employ disproportionate force, as was seen recently in Israel’s Gaza war, which was triggered by the Hamas’s firing of crude, home-made rockets with no guidance.

Consider another example: Pakistan’s military generals export terror by playing nuclear poker. They export terrorism from behind the nuclear shield so as to prevent retaliation against their roguish actions.

One can argue that nuclear might also drives America’s interventionist impulse. America’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, has been more at ease waging wars than in waging peace, as underlined by the launch of his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim country. His new war in Syria — which he initiated by bypassing the United Nations — is just the latest action of the United States that mocks international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, paradoxically, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

5. In our rapidly changing world, most technologies tend to become obsolescent in a decade or two. But more than seven decades after they were invented, nuclear weapons still remain the preeminent mass-destruction technology.

Nuclear arsenals may have no deterrent effect on the pressing conflicts we face today. Yet, for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, will remain at the center of international power and force. Nuclear weapons, as the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties.”

However — a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and nearly seven decades following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the world is at the threshold of new lethal and precision weapons, as underlined by the advent of information weapons, anti-satellite weapons, and the extension of arms race to outer space and cyberspace.

The aforementioned points indicate that nuclear weapons will remain at the core of international power for the foreseeable future. Still, there is a widely held international misperception about the number of countries that rely on nuclear weapons for security. Their number is not just nine (the five NPT nuclear powers, the three non-NPT nuclear-weapons states of India, Israel and Pakistan, plus North Korea). A sizable number of additional countries rely on nuclear-umbrella protection — a fact often obscured.

Actually, the states that are currently ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella number 30. Their number has been growing as part of the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In fact, the taproot of the ongoing U.S.-Russian tensions has been NATO’s aggressive expansion, including to the Baltics and the Balkans. Russia, however, drew a line in the sand when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”

The nuclear-umbrella protection provided by the U.S. extends to all members of NATO, a military alliance that has expanded from its original 12 members in 1949 to 28 states now. In1997, three former Warsaw Pact members, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, were invited to join NATO. Then, in 2004, seven more countries joined, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And in 2009, Albania and Croatia became the latest entrants to NATO.

NATO’s nuclear umbrella primarily relies on American nuclear weapons. However, in a contingency, British and French nuclear arsenals are also expected to play a role.

In addition to NATO members, the U.S. provides nuclear-umbrella protection to Japan (as part of the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960), to South Korea (a commitment from 1958 that was reaffirmed by America after North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006), and to Australia under the terms of ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty of 1951).

The U.S. nuclear umbrella, however, no longer covers New Zealand, whose accession to the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Treaty of Rarotonga, 1985) and subsequent enactment of domestic measures to comply with the imperatives of the zone triggered a bitter diplomatic row with the United States. By contrast, another ANZUS member, Australia, remains under the American nuclear umbrella despite being a party to the Rarotonga Treaty.

The security alliances of the Soviet Union (which broke up into 15 separate countries) and those of today’s Russia also are believed to have incorporated nuclear-umbrella protection, although Moscow has never acknowledged that publicly. However, after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union, half of the ex-Soviet allies and breakaway states have been absorbed by NATO as members. Russia currently has a military alliance — known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The creation of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in 2009 has only strengthened the dependence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (which are CSTO members) as well as of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the Russian nuclear umbrella.

Against this background, the number of states that rely directly or indirectly on nuclear weapons for their security is substantial. From an international-law standpoint, however, extending nuclear deterrence to non-nuclear-weapons states violates the spirit, if not the text, of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some, of course, have argued that it actually breaches the text of the NPT. After all, NATO’s nuclear doctrine is pivoted on nuclear sharing, and the United States has deployed nuclear weapons for decades on the territory of non-nuclear NATO members, often without their knowledge during the Cold War years. Now, the U.S. is believed to have approximately 500 tactical nuclear warheads in five NATO states — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Until 1991, American tactical nukes were deployed in South Korea. The North Korean nuclear threat makes redeployment of U.S. nuclear capabilities in South Korea theoretically conceivable.

Nuclear proliferation in the future will hinge largely on the credibility of U.S. security guarantees as perceived by America’s key, technologically advanced allies. The future of the NPT regime, despite its tremendous success thus far, looks anything but certain. The treaty’s main challenges now come from within, not from its non-parties — India, Israel and Pakistan, which never signed the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons.

Significantly, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping international geopolitics and power equations than at any other time in history. The growing tide of new innovations has not only shrunk the shelf-life of most technologies, but also accelerated the weaponization of science. Such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponization of science that instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space and cyberspace.

Grand speeches about a world without nuclear weapons are crowd-pleasers at the United Nations. But in truth, pursuing disarmament is like chasing butterflies — enjoyable for some retired old men but never-ending. Until nuclear weapons remain the premier mass-destruction technology, disarmament will stay a mirage. The Chemical Weapons Convention became possible only when chemical weapons ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the poor state’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the rapid pace of technological change creates a new class of surgical-strike WMD that makes nuclear weapons less relevant, nuclear disarmament would likely take center-stage.

Nevertheless, it has become difficult to palm off nonproliferation as disarmament. What many members of the international community want to see are genuine efforts to substantially reduce nuclear arsenals and to erode the utility of WMD in national military strategies. Today, the world has a treaty (although not in force) that bans all nuclear testing — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but are legally unencumbered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. This anomaly must be rectified.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (Harper, New York, 2010).

The Sunni Arc of Instability

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

fe21defbc1641fe5df0de23cb6094216.landscapeLargeWhile international observers fixate on the Sunni-Shia rivalry’s role in shaping geopolitics in the Islamic world, deep fissures within the Sunni arc that stretches from the Maghreb-Sahel region of North Africa to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt are increasingly apparent. Moreover, it is Sunni communities that produce the transnational jihadists who have become a potent threat to secular, democratic states near and far. What is driving this fragmentation and radicalization within the ranks of Sunni Islam, and how can it be managed?

The importance of addressing that question cannot be overstated. The largest acts of international terror, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and the 2008 Mumbai attack, were carried out by brutal transnational Sunni organizations (Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, respectively).

The Sunni militant group Boko Haram, known internationally for abducting 276 schoolgirls in April and forcing them to marry its members, has been wreaking havoc in Nigeria for years. And the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, whose dramatic rise has entailed untold horrors to Iraq and Syria, are seeking to establish a caliphate, by whatever means necessary.

The influence of these organizations is far-reaching. Just last month, individuals inspired by these groups’ activities carried out two separate attacks, one in the Canadian parliament and another on police officers in New York.

Political and tribal sectarianism in the Sunni Middle East and North Africa is both a reflection and a driver of the region’s weakening political institutions, with a series of failed or failing states becoming hubs of transnational terrorism. A lawless Libya, for example, is now exporting jihad and guns across the Sahel and undermining the security of fellow Maghreb countries and Egypt. Several largely Sunni countries – including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan – have become de facto partitioned, with little prospect of reunification in the near future. Jordan and Lebanon could be the next states to succumb to Sunni extremist violence.

The Sunni tumult has underscored the fragility of almost all Arab countries, while diluting the centrality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The post-Ottoman order – created by the British, with some help from the French, after World War I – is disintegrating, with no viable alternative in sight.

The sectarianism plaguing the Sunni belt is affecting even the relatively stable oil sheikdoms of the Gulf, where a schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council is spurring new tensions and proxy competition among its members. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view Qatar’s efforts to aid Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, even as their own wealth has fueled the spread of Salafi jihadism and Al Qaeda ideology. Both countries, along with Bahrain, have recalled their ambassadors from Qatar.

This rupture is compounded by a rift between the Middle East’s two main Sunni powers, Egypt and Turkey, whose relationship soured last year, after the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government, backed by pro-Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Ankara and expelled the Turkish ambassador from Cairo. In September, the Egyptian foreign ministry accused Erdoğan of seeking to “provoke chaos” and “incite divisions in the Middle East region through his support for groups and terrorist organizations.”

A similar divide exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the latter’s provision of aid and sanctuary to Afghan militants – a divide that will only deepen when the United States-led NATO coalition ends its combat operations in Afghanistan this year. Pakistan’s support has spawned two incarnations of the Taliban: the Afghan Taliban, sponsored by the Pakistani military, and the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani military’s nemesis. Successive Afghan governments have refused to recognize the frontier with Pakistan known as the Durand line, a British-colonial invention that split the large ethnic Pashtun population.

Such conflicts are spurring the militarization of Sunni states. The UAE and Qatar have already instituted compulsory military service for adult males. And Kuwait is considering following in Jordan’s footsteps by reintroducing conscription, which is already in place in most Sunni states (and Iran).

Against this background, efforts to tame the deep-seated Sunni-Shia rivalry (by, for example, improving relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran), though undoubtedly important, should not take priority over a strategy to address the sectarianism plaguing the Sunni belt. That strategy must center on federalism.

Had federalism been introduced in Somalia, for example, when the north-south rift emerged, it probably would not have ended up as a failed state. Today, federalism can allow for the orderly management of key Sunni countries, where a unitary state simply is not practical.

The problem is that federalism has become a dirty word in most Sunni countries. And the emergence of new threats has made some governments, most notably Saudi Arabia’s, staunchly opposed to change. What these countries do not seem to recognize is that it is the petrodollar-funded export of Wahhabism – the source of modern Sunni jihad – that has gradually extinguished more liberal Islamic traditions elsewhere and fueled the international terrorism that now threatens to devour its sponsors.

Stagnation is not stability. On the contrary, in the Sunni arc today, it means a vicious cycle of expanding extremism, rapid population growth, rising unemployment, worsening water shortages, and popular discontent. Political fissures and tribal and ethnic sectarianism add fuel to this lethal mix of volatility and violence.

It is time for the Sunni world to recognize the need for a federalist approach to manage the instability and conflict that plagues it. Even the US must reconsider its regional policy, which has long depended on alliances with despotic Sunni rulers. In a region ravaged by conflict, business as usual is no longer an option.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

Friendly backer of jihadists

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Seeking to undercut Russia’s petro-economy, Obama is bolstering the petroleum clout of the jihad-bankrolling Qatar and Saudi Arabia while turning a blind eye to Qatar’s jihadist rampages in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. 

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

p7-Chellaney-a-20141104-870x627Tiny Qatar, the world’s richest country in per capita terms, has leveraged its natural-gas wealth to emerge as a leading backer of Islamist causes, paralleling the role that the much-larger, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has long played to promote militant groups in countries stretching from the Maghreb and the Sahel to Southeast Asia. Qatar’s clout comes from the fact that it is the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas and boasts one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds.

Located on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar has propped up violent jihadists in other lands. It has contributed, among others, to the rise of the terrorist Islamic State group and to Libya’s descent into a lawless playground for Islamist militias.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia’s sclerotic leadership, Qatar’s 34-year-old emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, is the youngest head of state in the Arab world. In fact, Qatar, which controls the Al Jazeera television network, seeks to present itself as a “progressive” oasis in the Persian Gulf — a nation that aspires to be “modern” in a way that few other Arab monarchies do, with the exception of Dubai.

Still, as a global funder of jihadists and a key negotiator for release of Western hostages held by Islamists it supports, Qatar has repeatedly bared its dual leverage, including by helping to free a number of Western hostages.

It brokered U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and Hamas, helped to free U.S. journalist Peter Theo Curtis from the Qatari-aided Jabhat Al Nusra terrorist group in Syria in August, and played a role in the earlier American swap of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantánamo Bay detainees from Afghanistan. The five, all prominent Taliban figures, now reside in Qatar as guests of its government under a deal with Washington.

Qatar has underscored its usefulness for U.S. policy in other ways too, including hosting a huge U.S. air facility (which it built at a cost of more than a billion dollars), agreeing in July to buy $11 billion worth of U.S. arms, and facilitating U.S. secret talks with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. Indeed, with U.S. support, it allowed the Afghan Taliban to open a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, the Qatari capital.

The U.S. today directs its air war in Syria and Iraq from the Qatar-based Al Udeid Air Base, home to 8,000 American military personnel and 120 aircraft, including supertankers for in-flight refueling of fighters. Another sprawling facility in Qatar, Camp As-Saliyeh, serves as the U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters. Qatar charges no rent for either facility.

Qatar’s critical importance for U.S. policy has deterred the Obama administrating from leaning too heavily on it to halt its support for violent jihadists. Qatar indeed has sought to augment its influence by funding some prominent American think-tanks, including the Brookings Institution, of which it is the single biggest foreign donor.

Qatar’s clout allows it to run with the foxes while hunt with the hounds. Like another U.S. ally, Pakistan, Qatar panders to America’s demands while working simultaneously to undercut U.S. interests. Some of America’s Arab allies indeed have been warning that Qatar is playing a double game — claiming to back U.S. policies while sponsoring dangerous extremists. Even as it bankrolls global jihad, Qatar participates in the U.S. air war in Syria — but not in the bombing campaign, limiting its role to surveillance flights.

Qatar is the world’s third largest holder of natural-gas reserves, nearly all of them located in one vast field — the North Field, widely considered to be the largest single gas reservoir in the world. The geographically concentrated reserves makes it is easy and cheap to extract gas. By contrast, Russia has nearly twice as much gas reserves as Qatar but located in hundreds of different places.

Seeking to undercut Russia’s gas-and-oil exports as part of its new sanctions drive against President Vladimir Putin’s government, the U.S. is aiding the petroleum clout of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This role further crimps Washington’s ability to prevent funds and arms from flowing to violent Islamists.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia generously supplied weapons and funds to violent Sunni extremists in Syria, opening the door for the Islamic State to emerge as a Frankenstein’s monster. The two monarchies, however, have supported opposing proxies in other places, including Egypt, Libya, Gaza and Mali, leading to a rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the grouping of the cloistered, petroleum-rich sheikhdoms.

The Qatari government has aided the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Hamas in Gaza, and Muslim Brotherhood movements across the Middle East and North Africa. Additionally, wealthy Qataris have served as private fund-raisers for a spectrum of violent Islamist groups, with U.S. Treasury officials singling out Qatar and Kuwait as “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorist fund-raising.

Yet the Obama administration has remained unwilling to confront Qatar directly. Even as the U.S. wages war on the Islamic State, it has enforced no sanctions against those that helped create this monster. Indeed, there is conspicuous U.S. silence over who aided the Islamic State’s rise, lest unpalatable truths be uncovered.

Today, as a result of sharpening geopolitical competition between Arab monarchies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are arrayed on opposite sides. While Saudi Arabia backs strongman regimes in Islamic states, Qatar supports grassroots Islamist groups. The rival top-down and bottom-up approaches, however, cannot obscure the role of both camps in instilling a jihad culture in other states.

In continuing to back Muslim Brotherhood-style movements — which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view as a dangerous threat to the region and to their own security — Qatar has not been deterred by its strategic vulnerability: the Saudi military could snap it up in short order.

Qatar has sought to mitigate that vulnerability in two ways — by hosting major U.S. air and ground facilities, which control access routes to Qatar; and by trying to punch far above its weight internationally.

In the Sunni world, Qatar does not have the same religious-political maneuverability as Saudi Arabia, home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But Qatar is buying influence by other means, including funding grassroots militant movements and hosting major international events, including the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In fact, Qatar believes its investment in Islamist causes puts it on the side that is bound to eventually win. It sees grassroots Islamism as representing the political aspirations of the majority, and has teamed up with the pro-Islamist government in Turkey to empower political Islam. In Syria, Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza, and elsewhere, Qatar has played an overtly militant role.

Qatar’s jihadist agenda is clearly spawning more dangerous Islamists and rearing forces of destabilization and terror.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2014.

A broken international system?

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Qatar’s Jihad

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An internationally syndicated column by Project Syndicate

Qatar may be tiny, but it is having a major impact across the Arab world. By propping up violent jihadists in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, while supporting the United States in its fight against them, this gas-rich speck of a country – the world’s wealthiest in per capita terms – has transformed itself from a regional gadfly into an international rogue elephant.

imagesUsing its vast resources, and driven by unbridled ambition, Qatar has emerged as a hub for radical Islamist movements. The massive, chandeliered Grand Mosque in Doha – Qatar’s opulent capital – is a rallying point for militants heading to wage jihad in places as diverse as Yemen, Tunisia, and Syria. As a result, Qatar now rivals Saudi Arabia – another Wahhabi state with enormous resource wealth – in exporting Islamist extremism.

But there are important differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s Wahhabism is less severe than Saudi Arabia’s; for example, Qatari women are allowed to drive and to travel alone. In Qatar, there is no religious police enforcing morality, even if Qatari clerics openly raise funds for militant causes overseas.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that, whereas Saudi Arabia’s sclerotic leadership pursues reactionary policies rooted in a puritanical understanding of Islam, Qatar’s younger royals have adopted a forward-thinking approach. Qatar is the home of the Al Jazeera satellite television channel and Education City, a district outside of Doha that accommodates schools, universities, and research centers.

Similar inconsistencies are reflected in Qatar’s foreign policy. Indeed, the country’s relationship with the United States directly contradicts its links with radical Islamist movements.

Qatar hosts Al Udeid air base – with its 8,000 American military personnel and 120 aircraft, including supertankers for in-flight refueling – from which the US directs its current airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Camp As-Sayliyah – another facility for which Qatar charges no rent – serves as the US Central Command’s forward headquarters. In July, Qatar agreed to purchase $11 billion worth of US arms.

Moreover, Qatar has used its leverage over the Islamists that it funds to help secure the release of Western hostages. And it hosted secret talks between the US and the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. To facilitate the negotiations, Qatar provided a home, with US support, to the Taliban’s de facto diplomatic mission – and to the five Afghan Taliban leaders released earlier this year from US detention at Guantánamo Bay.

In other words, Qatar is an important US ally, a supplier of weapons and funds to Islamists, and a peace broker all at the same time. Add to that its position as the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas and the holder of one of its largest sovereign-wealth funds, and it becomes clear that Qatar has plenty of room to maneuver – as well as considerable international clout. Germany’s government found that out when it was forced to retract its development minister’s statement that Qatar played a central role in arming and financing the Islamic State.

Qatar’s growing influence has important implications for the balance of power in the Arab World, especially with regard to the country’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia. This competitive dynamic, which surfaced only recently, represents a shift from a long history of working in tandem to export Islamist extremism.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia generously supplied weapons and funds to Sunni extremists in Syria, opening the door for the emergence of the Islamic State. Both have bolstered the Afghan Taliban. And both contributed to Libya’s transformation into a failed state by aiding Islamist militias. During the 2011 NATO campaign to overthrow Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, Qatar even deployed ground troops covertly inside Libya.

Today, however, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides. Qatar, along with Turkey, backs grassroots Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in Gaza, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and the Levant. That pits it against Saudi Arabia and countries like the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, whose rulers view such movements as an existential threat, with some, including the House of Saud, investing in propping up autocratic regimes like their own.

In this sense, Qatar’s tack has produced a rare schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members collectively possess nearly half of the world’s oil reserves. The proxy competition among rival monarchies, which led some of them to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in March, is intensifying violence and instability throughout the region. For example, the UAE, with Egyptian assistance, secretly carried out airstrikes in August to stop Qatari-aided Islamist militias from gaining control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Qatar’s leaders are willing to challenge their neighbors for a simple reason: They believe that the grassroots Islamist movements they support – which, in their view, represent majority political aspirations – eventually will win. Anticipating that such groups will increasingly shape Arab politics, displacing strongman regimes, Qatar has set out to empower them.

In doing so, Qatar is destabilizing several countries and threatening the security of secular democracies far beyond the region. For the sake of regional and international security, this elephant must be tamed.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate. 

Obama, a serial interventionist

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The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, yet today it seeks a peace deal with that enemy. And now Obama has declared a new war to get rid of the Islamic State — a war that is likely to broaden into something more geopolitical in nature.

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

ObamaAmerica’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, who helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling ruler Muammar Gaddafi, has started a new war in Syria and Iraq even as the U.S. remains embroiled in the Afghanistan war. Obama’s air war in Syria — his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and the one likely to consume his remaining term in office — raises troubling questions about its objectives and his own adherence to the rule of law.

While it has become imperative to contain the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadist army that has imposed a despotic medieval order in the territories under its control, any fight against terrorism can be effectively waged only if it respects international law and reinforces global norms and does not become an instrument to pursue narrow, geopolitical interests. After all, all strains of the cancer of Islamist terrorism — not just the type IS represents — need to be eliminated.

Ever since America launched its “war on terror” in 2001 under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, the scourge of international terrorism, ominously, has spread deeper and wider in the world. Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. Once-stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt remains “ground zero” for the terrorist threat the world confronts.

Obama was expected to be fundamentally different than Bush, whose invasion and occupation of Iraq left a broken, failing state — an expectation that led the Nobel committee to award him the peace prize soon after he assumed office. Yet, underscoring the disconnect between his words and actions, Obama has been more at ease waging wars — that too in breach of international law — than in waging peace.

Although elected with the support of the left, he has proved to be one of America’s most militarily assertive presidents since World War II, with his readiness to unilaterally use force driven by a penchant to act as judge and executioner.

Obama in Cairo in 2009 sought “a new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”  However, his reliance on U.S. hard power has been underlined by his serial bombing campaigns in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Obama also directed a threefold increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, sharply escalated drone attacks in Pakistan, initiated “targeted killing” of even U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism, and authorized the helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan’s heartland. And now comes the news that this warrior-in-chief, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most-sophisticated.

In fact, Obama enunciated his rejection of nonviolence and his partiality for use of force in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, saying: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.” He has since used the fight against terrorism to make never-ending war, to the delight of the military-industrial complex.

Still, what stopped Obama from seeking United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate before initiating a war in Syria against IS militants? The answer is obvious: Obama wants to wage his open-ended war on U.S. terms, like his earlier interventions.

Five repressive Arab autocracies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — form the core of his “coalition of the willing” on Syria. In addition, Turkey has overcome initial hesitation and agreed to allow the U.S. military to launch operations against the Islamic State from its territory. Paradoxically, the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the UAE aided IS’s rise, either openly or inadvertently.

This is a coalition of sinners now dressed as knights in shining armor.

Such has been the tepid international response to what the White House admits will be a multiyear military offensive in the Syria-Iraq belt that only five of the 22 Arab states (or, to put it differently, five of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) have joined the coalition. And even though the U.S. is striking a terrorist group, its urge to test new weapons has led to the debut in war of the problem-plagued F-22 stealth fighter.

Obama displayed his disdain for international law by addressing the U.N. after presenting his bombing blitzkrieg in Syria as a fait accompli. In his address, as if to undergird the mismatch between his own words and actions, he condemned what he called Russia’s ethos of “might makes right,” saying “right makes might.” He then told the U.N. climate summit that the U.S. has “reduced our total carbon pollution by more than any other nation on Earth,” yet data released by the U.S. energy department show U.S. carbon emissions — already the world’s highest in per capita terms — are climbing again.

To rationalize unleashing force in Syria by bypassing the U.N., the Obama administration has meretriciously claimed the defense of a third country, Iraq, as a legal ground, thus invoking the doctrine of hot pursuit. Such a precedent could allow the sovereignty of any nation to be violated. It also flouts the UN Charter, which defines self-defense as actions necessary to uphold a country’s territorial integrity and political independence and limits self-defense to exceptional circumstances, such as when a nation is under direct attack.

In reality, the war in Syria is just the latest U.S. action mocking international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UNSC authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

Indeed, Obama has not sought even U.S. congressional authorization before embroiling his country in yet another war.

To justify his serial interventions and interminable war making, Obama has continued to speciously cite the congressional authority Bush secured to specifically go after those that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But given that linking the Islamic State to the 9/11 attacks would stretch plausibility, especially since Al Qaeda has publicly disavowed Islamic State, his administration started the Syria war by claiming an “imminent” threat to U.S. homeland security from a previously unknown “Al Qaeda affiliate,” Khorasan.

Such is Obama’s war-making itch that a year ago he almost went to war to bomb Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office, but now his administration pre-notified Damascus about the start of its airstrikes against the Islamic State so that U.S. bombers did not attract Syrian anti-aircraft fire. The new Iraqi prime minister has revealed that he conveyed Washington’s message to Assad that the strikes were not directed at his regime.

The unpalatable truth that Obama seeks to obscure is that the main Islamic State force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded rebels who were reared to help overthrow Assad. Flush with his success in overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011 — an operation that involved orchestrating an Islamist insurgency in Benghazi and then launching a NATO aerial-bombardment campaign in the name of “responsibility to protect” — Obama turned his attention to effecting regime change in Syria. The CIA, besides training Syrian militants in Jordan and Turkey, funneled weapons and funds to Sunni rebels in Syria from a base it set up in Benghazi at the U.S. consulate, which ironically was overrun on September 11, 2012 by CIA-armed Libyan Islamist militiamen, who killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Obama turned a blind eye as the Islamic State made significant advances from mid-2013 onward — or, as he now puts it euphemistically, his administration “underestimated” the threat from this hydra-headed group. Indeed, it was the “machinations” of the forces now waging war in Syria — the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — that “helped open the door for the terrorist Islamic State group to threaten the region,” as columnist David Ignatius said in the Washington Post. For Washington, Islamic State militants ceased to be “good” terrorists undermining Assad’s rule and Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq after they began threatening U.S. interests and beheaded two American journalists.

If President Ronald Reagan accidentally fathered Al Qaeda, Obama is the Islamic State’s unintended godfather turned self-declared slayer-in-chief. Having earlier tasked the CIA with aiding Syrian rebels to help oust Assad, Obama has now tasked the agency to create a proxy ground force against the Islamic State in Syria by training and arming thousands of more insurgents.

Training and arming non-state combatants flies in the face of international law. The directive also ignores the lessons from past covert interventions.

“We helped to create the problem that we are now fighting,” Hillary Clinton candidly told Fox News as secretary of state, saying “we had this brilliant idea we were going to come to Pakistan and create a force of mujahedeen and equip them with Stinger missiles and everything else to go after the Soviets inside Afghanistan.” Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces in Libya has badly backfired.

The U.S. indeed has also contributed to India’s terrorism problem. After all, large portions of the CIA’s multibillion-dollar military aid for the Afghan rebels in the 1980s were siphoned off by the conduit, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to trigger insurgencies in India’s Kashmir and Punjab. India — and Pakistan — have paid a heavy price for America’s continued cozy ties with the Pakistani military and its ISI spies. Yet, paradoxically, the U.S. has used counterterrorism as a key instrument to build a strategic partnership with India.

Bzv7KFQCcAAGKKcObama pledged in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, Obama now wants bases there for a virtually unlimited period.

The end of the political crisis in Kabul opened the way for the new Afghan government to sign on September 30 the bilateral security agreement that Obama sought as the legal basis to keep U.S. bases, with almost 10,000 American troops. A residual U.S. force, however, will be more vulnerable to Afghan Taliban attacks, thus strengthening Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the “Quetta Shura,” the Taliban leadership ensconced in Pakistan.

As the longest war in its history in Afghanistan attests, the U.S. is better at starting wars than in ending them. In fact, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, yet it now seeks a peace deal with that enemy. Indeed, the birth of the Afghan Taliban — fathered by the ISI — was midwifed by the CIA in the early 1990s.

What Obama has started as an offensive to get rid of the Islamic State is likely to broaden into something more geopolitical in nature for U.S. interests. The U.S., for example, is interested in mending the damage to its interests from its decade-long Iraq occupation, which made Iran the real winner. Yet the new involvement in Syria could end up as Obama’s Vietnam.

More broadly, America’s longstanding alliance with the Persian Gulf’s jihad-bankrolling Islamist monarchs does not augur well for its “war on terror,” which has spawned more militants than it has eliminated. With U.S. support, the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, have been able to ride out the Arab Spring. Paradoxically, the U.S. practice of propping up malleable Islamist rulers in the Middle East not just spurs strong anti-U.S. sentiment, but also fosters grassroots support for more independent and “authentically” Islamist forces.

A rolling, self-sustaining war targeting terrorist enemies that America’s own policies and interventions continue to spawn is not good news even for the U.S., whose military adventures since 2001 have cost $4.4 trillion, making its rich military contractors richer but destabilizing security in several regions.

At a time when America faces a pressing need for comprehensive domestic renewal to arrest the erosion in its relative global power, it can ill afford self-debilitating wars. Unfortunately for it, one eternal warrior in the White House was succeeded by another serial interventionist.

The writer is a New Delhi-based geostrategist and author.

© The Japan Times, 2014.

America’s Never-Ending War

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It is official: US President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama is at war again. After toppling Libyan ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi and bombing targets in Somalia and Yemen, Obama has initiated airstrikes in the Syria-Iraq belt, effectively declaring war on the Islamic State – a decision that will involve infringing on the sovereign, if disintegrating, state of Syria. In his zeal to intervene, Obama is again disregarding US and international law by seeking approval from neither the US Congress nor the United Nations Security Council.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, launched America’s so-called “war on terror” to defeat groups that he insisted wanted to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” But Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was so controversial that it fractured the global consensus to fight terror, with the Guantánamo Bay detention center and the rendition and torture of suspects coming to symbolize the war’s excesses.

After Obama took office, he sought to introduce a gentler, subtler tone. Contending in a 2009 interview that “the language we use matters,” he rebranded the war on terror as a “struggle” and a “strategic challenge.” But the rhetorical shift did not translate into a change in strategy, with the Obama administration moving beyond security concerns to use its anti-terrorism activities to advance America’s broader geopolitical interests.

Thus, instead of viewing the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 as the culmination of the anti-terror “struggle” that Bush launched, the Obama administration increased aid to “good” rebels (such as those in Libya), while pursuing “bad” terrorists more vehemently, including through a “targeted killing” program. When it comes to terrorist activity, however, such lines are difficult to draw.

For example, Obama initially placed the Islamic State in the “good” category, as it undermined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and Iran’s interests in Syria and Iraq. His position changed only after the Islamic State threatened to overrun Iraq’s Kurdish regional capital, Erbil – home to US military, intelligence, diplomatic, and business facilities. Add to that the beheadings of two American journalists, and suddenly Obama’s team was using Bush’s war rhetoric, declaring that the US is at war with the Islamic State “in the same way that we are at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates all around the globe.”

America’s war on terror now risks becoming a permanent war against an expanding list of enemies – often inadvertently created by its own policies. Just as covert aid to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s contributed to Al Qaeda’s emergence – something that Hillary Clinton acknowledged when she was Obama’s secretary of state – the help that the US and its allies provided to Syrian insurgents after they emerged in 2011 contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

The US returned to Afghanistan in 2001 to wage an as-yet-unfinished war on the jihadists whom its actions had spawned. Likewise, it is now launching a war in Iraq and Syria against the offspring of Bush’s forced regime change in Baghdad and Obama’s ill-conceived plan to topple Assad.

It is time for the US to recognize that since it launched its war on terror, the scourge has only spread. The Afghanistan-Pakistan belt has remained “ground zero” for transnational terrorism, and once-stable countries like Libya, Iraq, and Syria have emerged as new hubs.

Obama’s effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, whose top leaders enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan, indicates that he is more interested in confining terrorism to the Middle East than defeating it – even if it means leaving India to bear the brunt of terrorist activity. (In fact, Pakistan’s ongoing war of terror against India also sprang from America’s anti-Soviet operation in Afghanistan – the largest in the CIA’s history – as the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence siphoned off a large share of the billions of dollars in military aid for the Afghan rebels.)

Similarly, Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State seeks merely to limit the reach of a barbaric medieval order. Moments after declaring his intention to “degrade and destroy” the group, Obama responded to a reporter’s request for clarification by stating that his real goal is to turn the Islamic State into a “manageable problem.”

Making matters worse, Obama plans to use the same tactics to fight the Islamic State that led to its emergence: authorizing the CIA, aided by some of the region’s oil sheikhdoms, to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels. It is not difficult to see the risks inherent in flooding the Syrian killing fields with even more and better-armed fighters.

The US may have some of the world’s top think tanks and most highly educated minds. But it consistently ignores the lessons of its past blunders – and so repeats them. US-led policies toward the Islamic world have prevented a clash between civilizations only by fueling a clash within a civilization that has fundamentally weakened regional and international security.

An endless war waged on America’s terms against the enemies that it helped to create is unlikely to secure either steady international support or lasting results. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tepid Arab and Turkish response to America’s effort to assemble an international coalition in support of what the Obama administration admits will be a multiyear military offensive against the Islamic State.

The risk that imperial hubris accelerates, rather than stems, Islamist terror is all too real – yet again.

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.